Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eilu V'Eilu: do over

Clearly we failed to live up to expectations in last month's Eilu V'Eilu, because they're asking the same question again this month: "This lively debate was conducted by two knowledgeable laypersons and sparked so much commentary that we decided to continue the discussion this month, led by two young, dynamic Reform rabbis." Ok, a less self-deprecating (and probably more accurate) explanation was that there were few points last month on which we directly disagreed, so I had to resort to talking about framing. This time around, the debate promises to be much more of a debate. Rabbi Leon Morris squares off against Rabbi Evan Moffic. Despite the similarity of their names, their positions have little in common. I agree about 95% with Rabbi Morris and about 10% with Rabbi Moffic.

Rabbi Morris and I have disagreed on the pages of this very blog. But our disagreement was mostly philosophical, and doesn't necessary lead to significant differences about practice or policy. I suppose this is as good a time as any to link to Amit's series on mimetic tradition (Part I and Part II), which I think supplements that conversation, particularly the part on "forcing oneself to at least acknowledge a departure from one’s parents’ observances (REAL PARENTS, not imagined eastern-european forebearers) and respect those observances for what they are – and in most cases, to accommodate changes within the mimetic framework".

As far as this Eilu V'Eilu piece goes, I am in agreement with all of Rabbi Morris's main points, including:

  • the change in American culture from a melting pot to a multicultural society (as I discussed in week 1). He writes "Although we don’t like to say it, there is no escaping that yet another basis for the rejection of ritual was driven by a desire to assimilate into American life." Though I didn't use the pejorative connotations of "assimilate", I wouldn't have even put in the "Although we don't like to say it" disclaimer -- as I have written elsewhere, I think this was a necessary move in its time, even if it doesn't make sense in the present time.

  • ritual and ethics are not mutually exclusive (as I discussed in week 3).

  • "Even as it spoke of ethics as the central component of religious life, classical Reform never produced a radically different ethical Jewish way of life that was as strict about interpersonal ethics as other Jewish streams were about Jewish ritual law." This painful truth (which I have mentioned before) hits the Reform movement right in the gut, and should give pause to all Reform Jews, regardless of their views on ritual.

  • "There still seems to me to be a very wide gap between 'the talk' of informed choice and 'the walk' of conventional Reform practice." - YES.

  • "First, there is a fear that a new generation of Reform Jews may not feel comfortable in conventional Reform synagogues." If anyone is in fact fearing that for the future, then they're trying to close the barn doors after the horses have escaped. "But such discomfort will be a source for renewal and change that should be welcomed." Should be, yes. I don't have the patience to stick around for it, but maybe someone else does.

  • "We need to re-define Reform Judaism as an approach (or set of approaches) to Jewish life and law, rather than to continue to define it as a mode of practice." YES. Reform is not an aesthetic, and is not an alternate orthodoxy. Autonomy and diversity are essential to the Reform approach(es), and therefore it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will (or should) arrive at the same practices.
Where I disagree is (unsurprisingly) mostly about framing. Rabbi Morris writes "Personal autonomy must be increasingly applied in ways that allow individuals to 'opt in' and not just 'opt out' of mitzvot." While I'm sure I would agree about whatever specific policies he's suggesting, I would steer clear of this binary yes-no view of mitzvot and would focus instead on the "how". I would also avoid equating the "Jewish traditions" in the question with "mitzvot": often we're talking about mere minhagim without the force of mitzvot, and I think there's nothing wrong with that -- people should be able to observe the minhagim they want without having to claim that they are mitzvot.

Now for Rabbi Moffic's column. I'm not going to respond to the first paragraph, because I'm no more interested now than I was a a month ago in discussing what practices Reform Jews and Reform congregations are and aren't doing. I'll leave that to Steven Cohen. The second paragraph is an important point, which I also alluded to in week 1 - the Classical Reformers saw themselves as recovering the essence of Judaism, such that Classical Reform itself was a "return to tradition".

The appearance of more traditional Jewish practices in Reform congregations today, as well as the inclusion in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform prayer book, of traditional prayer language like michayei hamatim (reviving the dead), cannot be called a “reclaiming” for Reform Jews because Reform Judaism never embraced such practices.
Setting aside the question of defining "more traditional Jewish practices" (especially in light of the previous paragraph, where we just read that prophetic ethics are traditional Jewish practices), this is a good point too, and one that I tried to argue in my exchange with Leon Morris - our starting point has to be where we are now, rather than some (real or mythical) time in the past. (To take an example from another conversation I was involved in a few years ago: For those of us who grew up in the Reform movement in recent decades, it's not a question of whether or not to "add" the imahot to the amidah -- the imahot are already in the amidah, so it's a question of whether or not to remove them.) HOWEVER, though both the statement quoted above and the previous paragraph are true, they are logically inconsistent as currently stated. Either we're defining "reclaiming" such that it can include practices that predate the beginning of the organized Reform movement (in which case both the Classical Reform emphasis on "the ethical core of Judaism" and Mishkan T'filah's inclusion of מחיה המתים could qualify), or we're defining it such that it only includes practices that have been embraced by the Reform movement (such that the sentence quoted above is correct, but the truth value of the previous paragraph becomes DOMAIN ERROR, and we'll have to use L'Hopital's Rule to figure out whether the founders of the organized Reform movement were claiming practices that historically belonged to Reform Judaism). The logical problem can be solved by using two different words for the two concepts, instead of trying to overload one word ("reclaim").

One could argue that it is a reclaiming of “traditional Judaism,” but traditional Judaism implies a comprehensive way of life and a sense of obligation to Jewish law.

Is he suggesting that Reform Judaism doesn't imply a comprehensive way of life? Even a purely ethical understanding of Reform Judaism (with no ritual practice at all) should be a comprehensive way of life! And is he suggesting that Reform Judaism doesn't require a sense of obligation to the ethical laws, or that "Jewish law" refers primarily to ritual law? If the latter, then he is undermining his own point that ethics are the core of Judaism.

Few Reform Jews, I would argue, feel an obligation to follow traditional Jewish norms like the dietary laws, donning of ritual garments or regular immersion in the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath).
Suppose for the sake of argument that this is true. What this may mean is that, as Reform Jews, their "comprehensive way of life and ... sense of obligation to Jewish law" brings them to different conclusions than your idea of "traditional Judaism". Not everyone holds the same static Kitzur Shulchan Aruch worldview that you do.

I have several concerns. First is the loss of focus on what makes Reform Judaism unique. As Reform Jews, we believe that worship needs to be accessible to the vast majority of American Jews who do not speak Hebrew.

So Rabbi Moffic is equating Reform Judaism with "Judaism for beginners", and is not treating this as a stopgap measure to address a suboptimal situation, but as a fundamental principle of Reform Jewish belief. If this is what "[a]s Reform Jews, we believe", then what makes Reform Judaism different from, or better than, Chabad, Aish, or any other organization that makes Judaism "accessible" to those with limited Jewish background? A key difference is that Chabad and Aish have a long-term plan of what happens to their recruits after their Jewish education reaches the point that they no longer need "accessibility" (viz. they become integrated into haredi communities), while the only plan anyone in the Reform movement seems to have come up with (other than rabbinical school or leaving the movement) is to make sure people never become quite educated enough that this becomes a problem. Much of the time this plan is successful, though there is the occasional spectacular failure. To Rabbi Moffic's credit, he never suggests that Jewish education is a priority or an objective, so in some ways he's being more honest than the rest of the movement, since he's not making any promises he can't deliver on.

And we believe that worship should reflect the openness that Reform has shown to the intermarried, the unaffiliated and other groups whose only home is Reform.

While it is true that the Reform movement is the only one of the three major institutional denominations where intermarried families are fully welcome, one could draw precisely the opposite conclusion from this. Given that many intermarried Jews end up in the Reform movement out of necessity, and don't necessarily have much in common with each other aside from being married to non-Jews, this could be an argument for welcoming greater diversity in Jewish practice within the movement.

As for "the unaffiliated": First of all, unaffiliated Jews come in all shapes and sizes. Second, by definition, unaffiliated Jews' home isn't Reform -- if it were, then they wouldn't be unaffiliated!

Rather than focus on promoting greater observance, we can use our freedom and creativity to meet the needs and aspirations of American Jews.

"Greater observance"??? Gah! If you don't agree with the Orthodox Jews and the Leon Morrises of the world, then why are you letting them define "observance" for you? If you believe that ethics is the core of Judaism, then why not say that greater ethical observance is greater observance? Or do you think that "we" shouldn't be "promoting" greater ethical observance either?

Those scare quotes bring me to my next point: What's with the dichotomy between "we" and "American Jews"? Who does Rabbi Moffic think his audience is? I thought it was "American Jews", but he seems to think that he's addressing the CCAR or other people in leadership positions. Speaking as one of those American Jews (albeit living outside the US at the moment) and not as one of the "we", I find the attitude elitist, since it suggests that "American Jews" have no independent motivation to pursue any sort of "observance", unless "we" "promot[e]" it.

To put it differently, the question that concerns us should not be, “How can we bring more Jewish traditions into Reform synagogues?” Rather, we should be asking, “As Reform Jews, how can we best live out our principles and bring more American Jews and their families into the synagogue?”

There it is again with the "we" vs. "American Jews". Both of these questions (the straw man as well as the one presented as favorable) presume that Judaism exists only or primarily in the synagogue. And both questions are inside baseball, intended for people leading synagogues rather than for ordinary Reform Jews. The questions that concern me are "How can I best live my life as a Jew, and in what kind of community can I do that?"

Where is the place, in Rabbi Moffic's vision of Reform Jewish community, for those who are neither part of the "we" whose job it is to bring people into synagogues nor part of the "majority of American Jews who do not speak Hebrew"?

Many Jews today do not feel the need for commitment to a synagogue or Jewish community. They feel out of place and unwelcome.

No argument there.


  1. I'm not sure the distinction between mitzvah and minhag has been meaningful for liberal Jews ever. I'm not even sure the distinction has been meaningful for any Jews since the redaction of the Talmud, except for Talmud scholars, and even then, mostly as a sort of intellectual game.

    Other than that, I agree completely with everything you wrote.

  2. In reading your Eilu V'Eilu, and then this one, I'm continually amazed by how different the dialog and buzzwords in the Reform world are than in any Jewish circles I've found myself in over the years. I'd practically gotten used to "songleader" vs. "shatz". But all the talk about "prophetic Judaism", "ethical monotheism", "hymns", and so on. Not to mention the idea of a congregation (past or present) that designates a volunteer to make sure that people take off any kippah they may be wearing! It's just a completely different conversation than I'm ever having.

  3. desh,
    What is your source for the kippah patrol volunteer? If you go back a few decades, there were ushers at certain Classical Reform congregations who asked gentlemen to remove their hats (which was the polite thing to do according to their aesthetic), but even the most "Classical" congregations are much more tolerant now, and don't infringe on personal freedom to wear a head covering.
    There is enough substantive material to argue with the extremes in our Jewish spectrum, but it's really not necessary to drudge up old practices that fell into disuse probably before you were born.

    -A not-Classical Reform rabbi.

  4. Anon--

    I haven't heard of it actually happening anywhere recently, but it still seems to be a part of the Reform conversations, sometimes as an example of what has changed for the better in the Reform world in recent years. Nonetheless, every time it comes up (or every time I'm reminded of it by people proudly asserting their decision to wear a kippah in shul, presumably in response to real or imagined kippah discouragement at some point in their life), it startles me a bit.

    I apologize for implying that I've heard of this as a recent practice.